The Forgotten History of the Radical ‘Elders of the Tribe’Roundup
tags: activism, Protest, elderly, Gray Panthers
Susan J. Douglas is an author, columnist, cultural critic and a professor of communication studies at the University of Michigan. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.
By the mid-1970s, she was a national celebrity. She had speaking engagements all over the country; she traveled 100,000 miles annually, giving at least 200 talks a year. She was all over the TV: “The Phil Donahue Show,” the “Today” show and “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson, multiple times. Media monikers for her included “ball of fire,” “dynamo” and the now-problematic “feisty.” In 1978, the World Almanac named her one of the 25 most influential women in the United States. Shortly before she died in 1995, ABC News profiled her as its “Person of the Week.”
She was Maggie Kuhn, the woman who, 50 years ago, founded the Gray Panthers, a movement to encourage activism — sometimes radical activism — among the country’s older people. Today, both Kuhn and her movement have been all but forgotten. But their mission is worth remembering, commemorating and perhaps even resurrecting, especially in the present moment.
Then, as now, was a time of intense activism. Inspired by demonstrations on behalf of racial and gender equality, and against the Vietnam War, Kuhn insisted it was time that the issues facing older people be included in any social reform agenda. Her passion was to shatter every stereotype she could about older people and, as a lifelong feminist, especially older women.
Infuriated by being forced out of her job at 65 (and even more irked that her parting gift was a sewing machine), and outraged by what gerontologists in the 1970s championed as “disengagement theory” — the notion that it was normal and natural for older people to simply withdraw from society — she took on what was then, and still is, one of the most socially acceptable biases in our country: ageism.
Kuhn was not one to “disengage,” or as she put it, keep “out of the way, playing bingo and shuffleboard.” She was a galvanizing figure, and by the late 1970s, the Gray Panthers had 100,000 members in more than 30 states.
Their tactics combined often-rowdy public protests, political lobbying and grass-roots organizing. Dressed in Santa suits, they picketed a department store for its mandatory retirement policies the day before Christmas, holding signs charging that Santa was too old to work there. Taking on the American Medical Association’s neglect of older Americans’ health issues, they dressed as doctors and nurses and made a “house call” to its convention to issue a diagnosis that it lacked a heart.